HARTFORD, Conn. – It was just the start of another school year, but the greeting was anything but routine for students arriving at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.
One by one, the students received high-fives as they filed past rows of black professional men on their way to the school entrance, introduced individually like members of a playoff team taking the court.
"Isaiah is going into the 1st grade!" one man shouted, leading the crowd in cheers of encouragement.
"Lily, 2nd grade! Let's show her some love."
Dozens of businessmen, policemen and others answered a call to show up to the dilapidated Hartford school in their work clothes or uniforms on Tuesday.
Organizer and local pastor, A.J. Johnson, said the welcome ceremonies began last year as a way to counter stereotypes of black men, and do something positive at a time of heightened tensions over police shootings of black men. But he said the ceremonies, which are planned this week at other schools in the city's poor, largely black neighborhoods, also aim to give a lift to students in traditional public schools that have seen many leave for charter and magnet schools.
"What we wanted to do was support the kids who did not get a chance to go to a so-called 'good school,'" Johnson said.
Among the cheering men dressed in jackets and ties was Damien Irving, 36, an underwriter for a local insurance community.
"I'm from the community, and I managed to escape it," he said. "It's important for me to come back to show that these kids can do the same."
Danyla Woolford, 8, was nervous when she saw the crowd outside the school, but was beaming by the time she reached the schoolhouse door.
"She went through like a rocket. She got so excited," said Chauncy Woolford, her father. "These are some real positive brothers right here. It's strength in numbers."
While many students arrived by bus and some came on foot with their mothers, Johnson noted that few were dropped off by men. Once all the children had gone into the building, he urged the men from the community to join his advocacy group in working with eighth-grade boys to teach them life skills.
"The need for black men to stand up is very critical particularly when it comes to education," he said.
Similar welcome ceremonies have been staged for students from minority communities in cities around the country including Atlanta, Boston and Seattle.